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Posted at: Sep 21, 2018, 6:53 PM; last updated: Sep 21, 2018, 6:53 PM (IST)MOVIE REVIEW: MANTO

The riveting universe of Manto

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Film: Manto

  • Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rasika Dugal, Tahir Raj Bhasin , Javed Akhtar, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Divya Dutta and Rishi Kapoor
  • Director: Nandita Das
The riveting universe of Manto
A still from Manto

Nonika Singh

Who can deny that Saadat Hasan Manto, one of the greatest Urdu writers, lives in his writing? But as he lives once again in Nandita Das’ much travelled film Manto, you meet not just the celebrated writer but more significantly the person. As the director, who has written the film as well, promises; she surely offers an intimate and touching portrait of the writer. A sketch that often has your heart in your mouth and invariably a lump in your throat. 

 His angst, anguish and pain hold a mirror to the times he lived in and echoes the pangs of his troubled life. Certainly his writings pulsate all through; why the film begins with one of the short stories on a minor sex worker. His famous stories form part of the leitmotif that Nandita weaves with the brilliance of a master auteur. Stories, however, are neither used as chronicler markers nor do these stand out as a sore thumb; rather these blend seamlessly in the biopic. Khol Do, Sone Do…indeed you need to be a bit clued in to his literary world to unlock his creative genius in the film. 

The personal arc is easy to grasp. From his happier days in Bombay to his sudden decision to migrate to Pakistan, the narrative reflecting on his personal life has you so riveted that the intermission seems like an intrusion. Here is a narrative where everything simply flows. It says as much in words, in his quotable quotes as much in sheer one-liners. 

Brevity is the soul of Nandita’s film. The masterly quality of Manto’s prose echoes in her treatment which unlike his bebaak style is subtle yet piercing. And economical too, like his tales spanning just a few lines, there is much to read between the lines.  

While building his character sketch, she also offers us a peep into historicity of those days without dwelling too much on it. If his relationship with Bombay is underlined emphatically in “I want to stay indebted to this city forever” the communal tension hits you with “I am enough of a Muslim to be killed for it.” 

The emotional core also comes from his relationship with equally fierce writer Ismat Chugtai(Rajshri Deshpande) and friendship with famous actor Shyam (Tahir Raj Bhasin looks debonair and impressive.)  The film points out that it was Shyam’s offhand and cruel remark that inadvertently became the reason for Manto to leave Mumbai, the city he dearly loved. 

There is much we learn, some of which is already in the public domain, all over again. What we relearn most emphatically is his suffering, his turbulent last days when he just couldn’t kick the bottle and alcoholism consumed him. Then his infamous battle with charges of obscenity is well accounted for especially in context of the story Thanda Gosht. His own defence in the case is one of the highpoints, elaborating how literature has to look at truths, howsoever inconvenient, and can’t be sugar syrupy mush or even activism. 

The vintage feel of the period era, the music, acting of ensemble cast (whole lot of actors from Rishi Kapoor to Javed Akhtar have been roped in) all are on point. Perhaps, the only point on which Nandita can be faulted is her attempt to establish Manto as too much of a family man. But then in his interface with his wife Safia (suitably underplayed by Rasika Dugal) Manto emerges as human as humane. More so since Nawazuddin Siddiqui lives and breathes as Manto. The man who had the chutzpah to write his own epitaph in glowing terms, who had no misgivings about  his writing and who gave us masterpieces like Toba Tek Singh; Nawaz plays all the contrasting shades. As only he can, immaculate without stepping out of the character for a moment.  Disturbed, vulnerable, confident and fearless... you see him all.  

Manto may have died in Pakistan but like his most enduring character Toba Tek Singh he too was trapped in no man’s land where few understood him. And all this Nandita reminds us without saying so in so many words. Why Manto’s words ring true till today, why he was a visionary and why he wrote the way he did… she makes us listen to his inner voice without shouting from the rooftop. Or by unnecessarily edifying him.  Her cinematic universe of Manto’s world peopled by significant and not-so-significant others is engaging, reflective and undeniably worth visiting.  

nonikasingh@tribunemail.com

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